How do Christian families, most of whom are descendants of the survivors of the 1913-23 Christian genocide, continue to survive in Turkey? How much respect and tolerance are shown towards them by the Muslim society and government of Turkey?
A recent incident targeting the Assyrian Christian natives in a village in southeast Turkey gives us a very clear answer.
On June 6, a service was held in the Mor Gevargis Church in a village of Mardin province for the first time in a hundred years after the Assyrian genocide. The renovation of the church was started in 2015 by the Mardin Assyrian Ancient Foundation.
On the day of the opening ceremony of the renovated church, a group of 50 Muslims attacked the home of the only remaining Assyrian Christian family in the village, with whom the group had a property dispute. The family’s house was reportedly assaulted with stones, sticks, and weapons. Fortunately, no one was injured in the incident. The aggressors then set the family’s wheat lands on fire. The fire was extinguished before it got out of control, and the gendarmerie took precautions around the fields.
During the attack, the family was hosting guests, including Metropolitan of Mardin, Mor Filüksinos Saliba Özmen, Auxiliary Priest Gabriel Akyüz, and Midyat Mor Jacob Monastery Priest Daniel Savcı.
Assyrians or Syriacs are an indigenous people of Mardin and the wider Tur Abdin region in southeast Turkey. Today there are only around 15,000 Assyrians left in Turkey, and their population collapse is a result of genocide and decades-long persecution.
After Turks conquered Asia Minor and Tur Abdin in the eleventh century, Assyrians -- alongside other Christians and Jews – became dhimmis, oppressed subjects of an Islamic state who had to buy their lives with high jizya taxes.
As Eli Kavon, a rabbi, writer, and teacher, notes:
Under dhimmi status, Jews and Christians could not carry weapons, could not make converts, were not allowed to live in houses higher than those of Muslims, could not make a public display of their rituals, could only ride donkeys and not horses, could not build new churches or synagogues and had to pay a yearly poll tax. In addition, they had to wear distinctive clothing to differentiate them from Muslims.
Despite the systematic oppression, Assyrians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire for centuries maintained a strong demographic presence in the region – particularly with their churches.
The persecution against Christians culminated during the 1913-23 genocide, during which all Christians of Ottoman Turkey -- Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks – were targeted. Assyrians call the genocide “seyfo,” which means “sword” in their native language, as most victims were massacred with swords.
Professor Joseph Yacoub documents the genocide in his 2016 groundbreaking book Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide, A History:
The Armenian genocide of 1915 has been well documented. Much less known is the Turkish genocide of the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac peoples, which occurred simultaneously in their ancient homelands in and around ancient Mesopotamia – now Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The advent of the First World War gave the Young Turks and the Ottoman government the opportunity to exterminate the Assyrians in a series of massacres and atrocities inflicted on a people whose culture dates back millennia and whose language, Aramaic, was spoken by Jesus. Systematic killings, looting, rape, kidnapping and deportations destroyed countless communities and created a vast refugee diaspora. As many as 300,000 Assyro-Chaldean- Syriac people were murdered and a larger number forced into exile. The ‘Year of the Sword’ (Seyfo) in 1915 was preceded over millennia by other attacks on the Assyrians and has been mirrored by recent events, not least the abuses committed by Islamic State.
Joseph Yacoub, whose family was murdered and dispersed, has gathered together a compelling range of eye-witness accounts and reports which cast light on this ‘hidden genocide.’ Passionate and yet authoritative in its research, his book reveals a little-known human and cultural tragedy. A century after the Assyrian genocide, the fate of this Christian minority hangs in the balance.“
Sizable Assyrian communities still lived in Mardin and parts of the wider region of eastern Turkey until the 1990s, when the war between the Turkish military and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) escalated. Assyrians got stuck between the two forces and had to leave their historic lands when their villages were burnt or evacuated by the Turkish military. Assyrians have also been targeted and persecuted by their own Muslim neighbors, many of whom are Kurdish.
In 2017, human rights activists Ayşe Günaysu and Meral Çıldır documented stories of seizures of Assyrian lands, and persecution of Assyrians in Tur Abdin, the historic Assyrian homeland in southeast Turkey.
In an article titled “At the Church, on Her Own,” Günaysu wrote in 2017 that an Assyrian nun at Mor Dimet church was resisting attacks, threats, and harassment on her own in the village of Zaz in Mardin. Despite all the extreme difficulties she faced, the nun refused to leave her church and village, Günaysu noted.
Men in two or three cars often go to the church and park them outside, the nun said. They sometimes wait there or get out of their cars and walk around the church, punch the door, shouting “Allahu akbar” [Allah is the greatest], scream curses at the nun and tell her to leave.
The nun said: One night they shouted at me "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, you, the daughter of the kafir [infidel], you, whose Allah we f****d, we came here to chop off your head. Get out now!"
The nun was about to call the gendarmerie but changed her mind at the last minute because she thought the soldiers could get injured if a clash broke out between them. She called them in the morning, and the soldiers responded by asking her why she had not called at night.
One day, they came again and waited outside the church for a long time. They walked around and punched the door, screaming and cursing: "What are you doing here? You seized this place, but these lands are ours. Leave!"
The nun responded: "You are Muslim. I am a Christian. I am a nun. This is my village. My church. I am not leaving."
These harassments, curses, threats, and punches at the door have been going on for years, the nun said. For example, when the priest of the village, Abuna Yakup, was stopped outside and beaten up, the locals of the village did not even ask her "What is going on here? Do you need anything?"
She then went to the police station several times. And prosecutors took her testimony. She was told that she needed security guards but was not provided with any. And nothing came of the attackers because the nun was not able to describe their appearance.
The nun then tearfully remembers: "The prominent members of a [Kurdish] tribe walked up to the priest, Abuna Yakup, to beat him up, and even while he was lying ill in bed, they pulled his white beard."
The nun had three dogs to protect her. Two were shot to death by "unknown assailants." She found them covered in blood. The third one is still missing.
The government-funded Kurdish “village guards” terrorized the Assyrian villagers in the 1990s. They openly declared: "We are the Allah of this place. We are the state, the judge, and the prosecutor."
Assyrians became unable to plow their lands or hire agricultural workers. Physical attacks, injuries, seizures of lands, harassment, kidnappings of Assyrians and illegal confiscations of their properties made their lives unbearable.
Isa Acan, the head of the Zaz Village Development Association, who lives in Hamburg, said:
Persecution and lawlessness have been going on since Seyfo [genocide]. They condone these things. If they did not, tons of our agricultural produce would not have been illegally picked by people who have no right to them. And they would not have cut off and destroyed our oak trees and almond trees in our forests and privately-registered lands. They have burnt down our vineyards of hundreds of square meters − of course, after they picked our grapes!
Acan still hired workers to pick the produce in his fields until 2015. But he could not do so any longer since his workers were threatened. Those who threaten him are now using his fields, picking the produce, and seizing their income. They settle in Assyrian homes and even sue the real owners of these homes, saying "these places belong to us.”
Acan prepared a list of families who illegally use Assyrian fields and submitted it to the Turkish consulate in Hamburg, the governor office in Mardin and the district governor of Midyat and filed countless lawsuits against them. However, pressures, threats and physical attacks are ongoing, and nothing has come of the lawsuits.
His lawyer said: "We cannot get any result from the lawsuits because we cannot find witnesses to testify concerning these crimes. People fear testifying at court as witnesses." The lawyer added that they were not able to find a witness to testify at court after Acan and the old and elderly priest, Abuna Yakup, were caught and beaten in the street.
Attempts at seizing Assyrian lands include:
- Seizing lands using fake title deeds
- Suing Assyrians, the real owners of those lands, to be able to take their lands
- If they fail, suing them again under different names (as different applicants)
- If all efforts fail, applying to the Undersecretariat of the Treasury and the Ministry of Forestry in Ankara and making these institutions sue Assyrians. If the Treasury and Ministry of Forestry take these lands or properties, the complainants will attempt to take them from these institutions later.
Günaysu noted that Deyr Hadad or Mor Aho monastery is partly in ruins, but the church remains in good shape. However, the ruins and the church are pitted with holes dug by treasure-hunters. And other buildings were constructed illegally in the area next to the church.
One of the ways to seize Assyrian lands is by building mosques, homes, or health centers next to Assyrian churches. That is how locals later claim a right on Assyrian villages or sacred places and, in time, these places end up being owned by Muslims.
The building in the area where the Deyr Hadad monastery is located and the wall surrounding it demonstrates yet another attempt at seizing Assyrian property. After the authorities determined the construction was illegal, Assyrians sought help from the then Kurdish-governed Mardin municipality and Midyat municipality. Both claimed that they were not responsible for illegal construction, so the illegal building and the wall continue to stand, violating the rights of Assyrian owners. The Assyrians that Günaysu and Çıldır spoke with said that in similar situations, their expectations were not met by Kurdish political and civil society organizations.
Günaysu also told of a story of another Assyrian village that was exposed to extremely heavy pressure and persecution and forcibly evacuated in the 1990s: A Kurdish tribe supporting the anti-government HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and another tribe supporting the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) were in a long-standing “blood feud.” But when the General Directorate of the Land Registry and Cadastre went to the village to register the owners of the lands, these two tribes suspended their hostilities, made a deal, and registered themselves as the owners of the Assyrian lands.
In another village, the mayor from the ruling AKP party and the head of the anti-government HDP party joined together and filed a lawsuit against the Assyrian villagers so that the Assyrian lands could be transferred to the Undersecretary of the Treasury -- so they could take the lands for themselves later.
History has taught them [Assyrians] a lesson. It is commonplace [for Muslim of different political inclinations] to unite against Christians if there is Christian property to share.
The nun said: "I am from the village of Hah. My mother's name was Nebite. My father was Isa. He died in 1981. They took us out of the village and scattered [displaced] us across the world. Then I moved to Sweden with my five siblings and mother. I stayed there for five years. But I didn't like the life in Europe. I said 'I will return to my lands.' I decided to return and be a nun. I dedicated my life to churches. I returned here with Father Yakup [Jacob] in 2001. There were no Assyrians left here. When we came back, they [the locals] were using the bottom of our olive and fig trees as toilets. Sewage water was pouring into the cemeteries of our saints. And they had poured toilet water into the interior of our chapel. The enkleistra [place of reclusion] was filled with wastewater. Ever since we have come here, their insults and swearwords have never stopped."
From July 7 to 12, 2017, Çıldır and Günaysu went to Assyrian villages in Tur Abdin − Zaz, Dayro Daşlibo (Çatalçam), Der Kube (Karagöl), Hah (Anıtlı), Bsorino (Haberli), Sare (Sarıköy), and Kafro (Elbeğendi) and spoke with Assyrian priests, teachers, and other locals there.
Günaysu wrote: "We saw the traces of the Seyfo [Assyrian genocide] everywhere. In the abandoned, half-ruined churches, monasteries, homes that treasure hunters have filled with holes. An Assyrian told me: ‘The stones must speak to tell all this because there are no [Assyrians] left, people have been killed.'”
The Assyrian genocide is ongoing in Turkey -- through pressure on and the persecution against Assyrians. Their villages were forcibly evacuated in the 1990s. Since 2002, when a few of them returned from Europe to their villages or towns, they have been constantly targeted. In January 2020, for instance, an Assyrian couple, Hurmuz Diril, 71, and Simoni Diril, 65, was abducted by unidentified assailants in their village of Meer in Şirnak province, southeast Turkey. The decaying remains of Simoni were found by one of her sons in a river near their home two months after the abduction. Hurmuz remains missing.
"Seyfo [the Assyrian genocide] has never ended," Assyrians told Günaysu. "Not in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, not up until today."
More Assyrians were murdered after Seyfo [the genocide] than during the genocide. They were murdered everywhere. While walking in the streets, working in their fields, while grazing their animals, or picking their crops. They murdered us, saying “let's kill them off so that we can own their property.”
It was not "just" murders. Kidnappings of girls, stopping people in the streets and severely beating them, injuring them, seizing their fields, homes, forests, and other properties, threatening, harassing, intimidating them.
They [Muslims] have their own forests. Yet they still come to our forests and cut down our trees. We tell them, “If you are poor, just tell us; we can help you. But do not steal.” But no, they still cut down our trees. For the property of the kafir [infidels] are halal [permissible] to them. When people from the Directorate of the Land Registry come to our areas to inspect, they are accompanied by armed men of the other side. Assyrians say “these lands are ours.” They respond by saying “don't say that. All of this belongs to Allah.”
Assyrians, whose ancient ancestors established one of the world’s greatest civilizations, are still harassed and oppressed in a NATO member country, Turkey.
As retired US diplomat Alberto Miguel Fernandez wrote about the recent attack against the Assyrian family in Mardin:
One Assyrian Christian family too many. Somehow “diversity, tolerance and welcoming minorities” are only slogans and policy to be applied in the West. Not in Turkey.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.